Tristan and Iseult (1976) - 65 mins

4 singers, mimes and puppets, 14-piece ensemble

Libretto: Malcolm Crowthers and Michael Hill

First performance: Auckland International Festival, 1978 with Jane Manning, Robert Oliver, Roger Wilson, Graeme Wall; ensemble conducted by William Southgate.

The Tinker’s Curse (1979) - 70 mins

Children’s opera. 6 adult soloists, 2 children’s choirs. 10-piece ensemble, 6-piece children’s percussion ensemble, (or piano)

Libretto: Joan Aiken

Funding grant from 1YC Telethon Trust for the Year of the Child.

Written while composer-in-residence for Northern Arts.


The King of the Other Country (1983) - 90 mins

Sop, bar, 6 singers in minor roles doubling chorus

Libretto: Fleur Adcock

Written for the students of the NSW Conservatorium Opera School.

First perf: Students of Sydney Conservatorium with Jane Manning, Geoffrey Chard, Flederman, cond. Myer Fredman.

The Pirate Moon (1986) - 2 hours

Opera, 12 singers doubling roles

Libretto: Anna Maria dell’Oso

Commissioned for the students of Anthea Moller, to celebrate the opening of the new music building at the Auckland School of Music

first perf: Auckland School of Music, cond. John Elmsly, 1986

Bride of Fortune (1988) - 2 hours (SOUNZ, AMC)

Sop, bar, 6 singers in minor roles doubling chorus

Opera, Sop, ten, 2 bar: 10 smaller roles doubling as chorus 14-piece ensemble

WBride of Fortune, with a libretto by Australian writer Anna Maria Dell’Oso was commissioned by Western Australian Opera and the Perth Festival, was completed in 1988, and first performed in a four-night season in the Octagon Theatre during the 1991 Perth Festival. The production was mounted by Western Australian Opera in association with the Perth Festival, with the WASO Ensemble, conducted by David Kram. Singers included Merlyn Quaife (Grazia), Geoffrey Harris (Vito), and Emma Mathews in perhaps her first professional role (as Grazia’s sister Fiorina).

Technical Requirements

The score is written for 13 singers, who, except for the two main roles, cover many roles between them, both as soloists and ensemble singers. The instrumental ensemble consists of 17 players (15 if a musician can cover as percussionist and pianist, and an onstage player can play a simple accordion part. There are two pianos in the score. Some use is made of recorded sound (Street sounds, crowd sounds, water, wind), and the Perth production also made use of slides in the shipboard scenes.


The subject, of perennial interest in New Zealand and Australia, is immigration. The story, set in 1952, tells of an Italian woman, Grazia, who is married by proxy to Vito, already living in Melbourne. (cf Filipino brides in recent times.) The scene is set in a Calabrian village, on board ship and in inner-city Melbourne. (Collingwood).

In the opera, told in flashback after Vito’s death, we see Grazia in Italy preparing for her wedding, envisaging Australian life, going through a wedding ceremony with a portrait of her far-distant bridegroom, arguing with her brother about land, and, as the immigrant ship leaves port, imagining her unknown husband as lover. In Melbourne, things are not as they appeared. Vito has been badly hurt in an industrial accident, and shares a flat with his friend Mario. They both have secrets (Grazia has land in Italy, Vito has a child, ill with polio, by his former wife (now dead). Grazia loses her job, Vito gambles, they fight. Vito, learning of his daughter’s death, gets drunk; meanwhile, Grazia’s sister has sold her land so that Grazia can leave her unhappy marriage and return to Italy.

Seeing the money which could have saved his daughter, Vito spins out of control and threatens Grazia, holding her hostage. They become reconciled , but a policeman, breaking into the flat, mistakes the situation and shoots Vito. The opera finishes with Grazia, pregnant, returning the money and inviting her sister to join her in the new world. “It’s a hard life, but we can live here.

Libretto: Anna Maria dell’Oso

Commissioned by West Australia Opera Inc.

First perf. Perth Festival 1991, cond. David Kram

Art of Pizza (1995) - 2 hours plus

Opera, 2 sop, mezzo, high tenor, 8-9 singers doubling small roles and chorus, 14-piece ensemble

Libretto: Anna Maria dell’Oso

Commissioned by Chamber Made Opera with Australia Council funding.


Outrageous Fortune (1998), - 2 hours

Opera, Soloists, 14-piece ensemble (including taonga pūoro), kuia, sop. 2 mezzo, 2 high bar. 8 smaller roles doubling as chorus

Libretto: Christine Johnston

Outrageous Fortune, with a libretto by Christine Johnston and music by Gillian Whitehead ran for a highly successful season of five performances in Dunedin in October 1998, as part of the sesquicentennial celebrations of the founding of the city and the province of Otago.

The opera is in two acts, each lasting for approximately 65 minutes. The action is set on the Otago goldfields in 1862, and weaves together fictionalised dramatisations of true stories of Māori, European pakeha and Chinese living on the goldfields. Details of the plot and other aspects are available in the CD booklet, along with other information.

On the Arts Foundation website, there is an essay by William Dart on Gillian's work in which he says of Outrageous Fortune “a rich score, very much the fruit of Whitehead's openness.

The basic cast, as shown below, consists of 16 singers (4 Māori, 2 Chinese, 10 pakeha). In the Dunedin production, two dancers were added to the production, as well as an on-stage fiddler. The role of the fiddler (depending on a reasonable proximity to the orchestral pit) can be undertaken by a player from the ensemble.

The 15-piece instrumental ensemble consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, bass and taonga pūoro. (Māori instruments.) Although one player of taonga pūoro was used in the Dunedin production, ideally there should be two. If possible, the players of taonga pūoro should be positioned on stage throughout. (this wasn’t possible in Dunedin because of the small performance area). They should definitely be involved in the action.


Rona - soprano
Marama - traditional chant and karanga
Rani - high baritone
Hoani - high baritone
Bess - mezzo
Maryann - mezzo
Rosie - soprano
Lily - mezzo
Daisy - mezzo
Charlie/Mick - tenor
Timmy - tenor
Tommy - bar
Paddy - bass
Joe - bar

2 Chinese male singers

The first six listed roles are primarily soloists. The remainder are primarily ensemble singers, although they may have substantial solo work at times.

Commissioned by

First perf. Trust Bank Theatre, Dunedin, 1998, cond. Michael Joel

Archival CD Outrageous Fortune produced, 1999

Winner of SOUNZ Contemporary Award, 1999

Iris Dreaming (2016) - c 40 minutes

Lyric coloratura, fl/picc, ob, clars (Bb/Eb/bass), bsn, harp, 2 vln, vla, vlc, cb
Text: Fleur Adcock.

A chamber opera based on the life of Iris Wilkinson, better known as Robin Hyde, the New Zealand journalist, poet and novelist. Set in London in 1939, the opera traces her dramatic and turbulent life in New Zealand and her subsequent travels as a war correspondent in China during the Sino-Japanese war.